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30. April 2013

Portrait: Denis Golberg on the Occasion of his 80th Birthday

On 11 April 2013 Denis Goldberg turned 80. Denis Goldberg fought, alongside Nelson Mandela, against the dehumanising system of Apartheid, was sentenced at the Rivonia Trial and spent 22 years in prison. After his liberation in 1985, he was the ANC representative for Europe, the US and Canada. Until today, Goldberg is involved in many projects aiming at making South African society more just and egalitarian. For his merits in favour of the German-South African relations and for a just world, Goldberg was decorated with the German Bundesverdienstkreuz in 2011.

On the occcasion of his 80th birthday, the Embassy of the Republic of South Africa publishes his portrait and would like to honour him for his many merits to the exchange between Germans and South Africans and his tireless commitment to better South Africa and a just World.

Denis Theodore Goldberg, an engineer by training, was born on 11 April 1933 in Cape Town, Cape Province (now Western Cape) into a secular jewish family of communist immigrants. As he vividly describes in his auto-biography, people of all skin colours and cultural background were going in and out of his family's home, which is why he very early became conscious of the absurdity of the Apartheid regime. 

When in 1960 the police shot 69 peaceful demonstrants durind the so-called „Sharpeville Massacre“, the communist Denis Goldberg was one of those supporting Mandela's conviction that after decades of pacifist resistance it was now time to also take up arms and create a military wing defying the racist regime. Goldberg became a technical officer at the regional Western Cape command of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Speer of the Nation), the armed wing of the ANC, making bombs and teaching others how to make explosive substances.

Before the MK-Leadership could bring him out of the country, Goldberg was captured with 17 other activists during a Razzia on the Lillieasleaf-Farm in Rivonia near Johannesburg, imprisoned and charged in the so-called Rivonia Trial, together with Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and others under the Sabotage and Suppression of Communism Acts for ‘campaigning to overthrow the Government by violent revolution and for assisting an armed invasion of the country by foreign troops’. The charge sheet contained 193 acts of sabotage allegedly carried out by persons recruited by the accused in their capacity as members of the High Command of uMkhonto we Sizwe.

Goldberg was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment in Pretoria Local Prison. At the time, he too responded with a liberated laughter to this sentence since what had been expected was the death penalty. What he could not know in this moment was that he would indeed spend 22 years of his life in prison and what this meant. He was brought to a prison for Whites, seperated from Mandela and his other comrades.

In order to not loose his mind, he started taking correspondence degree courses of study and graduated in Public Administration, History and Geography, and in Library Science. He was halfway through a law degree when he was released.

In the 1980s the ANC-led resistance made South Africa practically ungovernable. At the same time, the international pressure on the regime increased. In this situation, Goldberg's daughter negotiated the release of her father, ironically through the State of Israel, which Goldberg accused of supporting the Apartheid system. He tried through various channels to get in touch with the ANC leadership in order to get their approval, but the contact could not be established. He finally accepted the offer without renouncing to be part of the struggle nor regretting his previous acts. 

He only had to promise not to engage in further antigovernment violence any more. 

"I promised that I would not carry a gun in the struggle for South Africa", he said. "At the age of 51, I'm not cut out anymore to make bombs and be a soldier in the field. Even had I been free all this time, I would have had to give it up by now" (Chicago Tribune).

"I hope Nelson understands my decision to leave, but in the end, my future activities will determine whether I was right or wrong" (Chicago Tribune) Goldberg said shortly after his release. Already in Tel Aviv, he started to put his promise into action and asked for an appointment with Isreal's foreign Minister in order to convince him to cut the ties to Pretoria.

In the following years, Goldberg became a political agitator and activist, traveling, giving speeches and trying to convince foreign governments to cut their economic and military ties with Pretoria. In London he resumed his work in the African National Congress (ANC) from 1985 to 1994. He was a spokesperson for the ANC and also represented it at the Anti-Apartheid Committee of the United Nations. A large group of US organisations presented Denis Goldberg with the Albert Luthuli Peace Prize in recognition of his work against apartheid.

At his return to South Africa in 2002 was appointed Special Adviser to Ronnie Kasrils MP, Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry until 2004. After this posting, he retired to Hout Bay, a small town near Cape Town, where he bought a house in direct neighbourhood of the local township. 

With an indefatigable enthusiasm and strength, Goldberg engages in social, educational and cultural projects with the aim of making South Africa a more egalitarian society.

Many South Africans world wide believe that all white South Africans supported the Apartheid regime. Comrade Goldberg is the living proof that this is not true. Equally false is the belief that every Black South African supported the liberation struggle.

What can be learned today from the great humanist Denis Goldberg is something that many politicians and decision makers world wide seem to lack today: Moral integrety, the belief in the possibility of change, nevermind how powerful the enemy might be and, more than anything else, the disposition to make personal sacrifices in order to achieve the bigger objectives. Denis Goldberg could easily have turned away and focussed on his personal career, his family, his individual life, as much as Mandela and Tambo could have become rich lawyers. Because they chose to pursue a broader cause and were prepared to pay a high personal price, South Africa is free today. 

Happy Birthday, Denis Goldberg!


  • Wikipedia
  • Wolfgang König: Denis Goldberg: Der Auftrag. Ein Leben für die Freiheit in Südafrika,
  • Jonathan Broder: Apartheid Fight Still His Passion, Chicago Tribune, March 21, 1985



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